Assam, once a paradise for freshwater turtles where the creatures were so abundant that it was a favorite local food, has seen its turtle population precipitously drop due to habitat loss and its over-exploitation as a source of food.
This caused the International Union for the Conservation of Nature to declare the black softshell turtle extinct in the wild in 2002, while also classifying the Indian softshell and the Indian peacock softshell turtles as vulnerable.
Yet this hasn’t stopped the nature-loving caretakers at the Hayagriva Madhav temple from providing sanctuary to the precious creatures in the temple’s ponds.
Residents at the temple are compelled to protect the species because of the sacred status accorded to them as a reincarnation of the Hindu deity Vishnu.
The temple’s religious adherents teamed up with the conservation group Good Earth to nurture dozens of turtles in the temple’s ponds. And now, the turtle’s population has rebounded from its possible demise to far healthier numbers.
“There are plenty of turtles in the temple pond,” Jaya Purkayastha from Good Earth told the Times of India.
The conservationists have helped breed the turtles by collecting newly-laid eggs from the grounds near the pond and warming them in an incubator to ensure that they hatch.
“The population of the turtle in Assam has gone down by a great extent. So we thought we needed to intervene and do something to save the species from extinction.”
The joint efforts showed a significant degree of success in January, when the group released 35 turtle hatchlings into the waters of a local wildlife sanctuary, 16 of which were black softshell turtles reared by hand at the temple.
Pranab Malakar, a caretaker of the pond, has long been devoted to the well-being of the turtle, largely for religious reasons. He explained:
“I used to take care of them as I like them. Later, after I became associated with Good Earth, it became my responsibility.
No one harms them here as they are incarnations of Lord Vishnu. I was born and grew up here. We have been seeing the turtles since or childhood. People respect them.”
Purkayastha told the Hindu:
“This is a milestone in Assam’s turtle conservation history, and it would not have been possible without the interest shown by the temple authorities in the artificial breeding program.”
Yet there still remain challenges ahead, including changes brought about by the immense popularity of the turtles, with hundreds of daily visitors who toss bread and other foods at the little reptiles, who eagerly gobble it up.
“This has triggered some biological changes among the turtles in the pond.
They have also lost their natural tendency of hunting for food.”
By any measure, so far the project has been a great success. Good Earth and the temple are now hoping to expand their breeding program to the 18 other temple ponds in the area that can be used to revive the still-endangered species.